Belfast Telegraph

Jim Wells: My view as a reluctant resident of the Opposition benches

Jim Wells
Jim Wells
Claire Sugden

By Jim Wells

I have been a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for 25 years and the institution has had many major problems during that period.

It is in everyone's interests that the latest impasse has been resolved and we were able to return to Stormont on Saturday.

I was pleasantly surprised when I read the agreement released on Thursday evening as I felt that it is a very good deal for all of the people of Northern Ireland.

The negotiating teams are to be congratulated on achieving such a fair and balanced way forward.

I was disappointed to learn on Saturday morning that the DUP had informed the Assembly Business Office that the whip had been withdrawn from me and I therefore reluctantly found myself on the Opposition benches with Jim Allister, Claire Sugden, the Green Party and People Before Profit.

What struck me immediately is just how small the Opposition will be in the new Assembly, with 93% of all of the MLAs being members of the five Executive parties.

This has to be a record for any Western democracy and I cannot see how this is a desirable situation.

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All governments need to be held to account by a strong, effective Opposition, and though there is a lot of experience amongst the six MLAs who form the Opposition, I cannot see how they can effectively shadow so many ministers.

It is highly likely that we will look back in several years and conclude that this was the major flaw in the new system of government that we have just agreed.

This very undesirable situation will be compounded by the fact that almost 20% of the MLAs in the chamber on Saturday had been recently co-opted and some have no experience of the complex workings of the Assembly.

I have also been removed from the Assembly Commission, the Audit Committee and no doubt my days are numbered as a Pension Trustee.

I enjoyed all of these roles but I have had a very good run on all three bodies and maybe now is the time for fresh ideas.

My new situation has pros and cons.

I remain friendly with many of the DUP backbenchers and I will miss the daily contact that I have had with them over many years.

Opposition speaking rights are very much curtailed under the Assembly's Standing Orders and I will find it difficult to get the opportunity to take part in many of the debates.

Motions tabled by non-Executive MLAs are often at the back of the queue when comes to being allocated time in the chamber and I am sure that will be a shock to someone who had not had the problem in the past.

I will however have a degree of independence in my new role and will no longer have to accept 'advice' from the Chief Whip.

Over the last 25 years I have had to bite my lip on many occasions and vote against proposals that I was convinced were good for Northern Ireland - particularly on environmental issues.

I have always been deeply worried about the climate crisis that we all face, but as there were conflicting views within the DUP on this critical issue I had to keep my views under wraps.

Again it would appear that the party has now come to the same conclusion on the biggest issue affecting the planet as I have held for many years.

Having become the 'Father of the House' and gained a lot of experience at Stormont I am looking forward to tabling questions to all of the Executive ministers without having to have many of these approved in advance by the all powerful SPADs.

I envy the powers exercised by Stormont's SPADs (from all parties), but having recently learnt how much influence these individuals really exercised, I will be watching carefully.

Jim Wells is an MLA for South Down and a former DUP minister

Belfast Telegraph


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